Toronto Star column – published August 23, 2014
If one of your goals in designing your garden is to attract desirable wildlife that is environmentally beneficial to your yard and neighbourhood, this should interest you: the most beneficial addition to your yard and garden that you can possibly make is a water feature.
A full blown pond or a half barrel-sized container full of water and plants will do more to create biodiversity than a swath of petunias or a row of gorgeous cedars, neatly trimmed and manicured. Think of it this way: how long can you survive without water [or your favourite beverage]? Ditto the wildlife that would love to live at your place. Think: drink, bath and feed.
Sure the song birds love your bird feeder and they may occasionally splash in your bird bath but there is more to attracting good things [with a heart beat] to your garden than this. Many species make use of small watering holes. Frogs, toads, salamanders and dragon flies can thrive in a surprisingly small body of water. Here are some tips to help you develop your own plan for a water feature that is environmentally beneficial:
– Make sure that the water is at least 80 cm deep. If you wish to overwinter fish and frogs, it should be at least a meter and a half deep in the Toronto area; deeper if you live up north where winter temperatures fall further.
– A natural-bottom pond will attract a wider range of wildlife in the early years than a plastic lined pond, but over time a pond liner can accumulate enough organic matter at its base that it too will attract a variety of wildlife.
– Water plants can help to keep the water clean and ‘oxygenated’ and others will attract pollinators, especially the plants that flower throughout the summer.
– Water that moves, like a fountain or a waterfall, will eliminate the potential for mosquito breeding, is easier to keep clear, and attracts more wildlife.
– If you have a still pond [the water is not moving] add a couple of cheap gold fish to keep mosquitoes under control. Fish have a voracious appetite for them. Mosquito larvae are to gold fish what squill are to whales.
– Locate your pond in a partially shaded place if you can. No more than 4 hours of sunlight a day is ideal; more will encourage algae growth.
– To attract wildlife, your pond should have sloping sides to make it easy for animals to enter and exit [but not too gradual a slope or raccoons will scoop up your fish].
– Provide a variety of depths in your pond to allow a greater diversity of critters to make their home there. Birds and tadpoles migrate to the shallow areas while frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and turtles like deeper options.
– Plant perennials around the perimeter of your pond. As they mature over the years they will provide protection for many amphibians that move around the water’s edge.
– Use annual floating plants in the early years of your pond to provide shade and protection for pond life. As the plants and trees mature around your pond [and you get closer to achieving the required shade on the surface of your pond] you can eliminate the use of floating annuals like duck weed and floating hyacinths.
– If you fill your pond with chlorinated [city] water, allow it to sit for at least a week before you place fish in it. When you refill your pond it is best to use rain water from a rain barrel.
– Do not move wildlife that make your pond its home and do not import plants or wildlife from the wild to your pond. The critters will find it as sure as lions and zebras find the watering hole in the Serengeti Plain and plants are best acquired from a reliable retailer.
– Native plants [nursery grown] are more likely to attract native critters [go figure].
– When choosing plants, consider the water depth carefully for placement. ‘Marginal’ plants perform best at the water’s edge while native lilies enjoy a depth of about 60 to 80 cm.
You will discover a whole new world in your backyard if you are successful in attracting beneficial wildlife to your pond or water feature. Note that dragonflies eat insects, including mosquitoes. Toads and frogs will breed there and make a racket all night long in spring and early summer as they call out to one another in love song. Do your best to ignore them. There are forces of nature at work that are much stronger than you or me.
If you choose to simply dig a hole and fill it with water, do not be in a hurry to keep it filled up through the summer months. The resulting dip in your landscape will remain damp and encourage ‘bog’ plants and wildlife to establish there. This concept is catching on in other parts of the world where water resources are limited. It works but requires a shift in the owner’s expectations. Be prepared for surprises like naturalizing plants, visits from local rodents and maybe a build up of interesting algae not unlike the mould on the very old container of yogurt that you left in the fridge. For the most part, they are all good.
While one of the goals is to attract song birds, local herons love garden ponds that are full of fish. To them, your place is vichyssoise of cold fish. I had my challenges with herons in my pond [about 7 X 7 meters] and I found the answer to keeping them at bay was a motion activated impact lawn sprinkler. I found one at Home Hardware called the ‘Scare Crow’ and it worked like a charm, without any harm to the dear herons. It works just as well for keeping hungry raccoons from the pond (in case herons aren’t your biggest issue).
Don’t ignore the potential for kids to learn a lot about the wild, native world around them through the ‘pond’ experience. Even if you live in the centre of the city, they [and you] will be amazed at how nature just finds water and makes her home there. Honestly, there is nothing more that you have to do to attract frogs, toads and the like to your water feature. Use your pond as an excuse to talk to your kids about dragonflies [mosquito eaters], frogs and toads that absorb oxygen through their skin and are therefore very sensitive to environmental changes, and the cycles of life, from tadpole to adult hopper.
For more details visit the Canadian Wildlife Federation website at www.cwf-fcf.org and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden website at www.ofnc.ca The Toronto Zoo has an excellent publication that you can access online called ‘Urban Outback’. Go to www.torontozoo.com for details.